Weekly Geeky Question #17: How I Got Into Comics

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #17:

How did I originally get into comics, and when did they first “grab” me?

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This question is tricky because truth be told, I don’t remember precisely.  But there are a few incidents which stick out in my memory.  And through some detective work and with some basic speculation, I’m going to try to put this together into some sort of narrative.

First of all, like many people, a lot of my early comic book / superhero love grew from exposure to a number of media tie-ins for the most famous characters.  This would include both The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, and Batman starring Adam West, two live action TV adaptations of some of the more famous characters.

Both shows were over before I was born so clearly I watched them in syndicated reruns, but both left their mark. For a long time, my image of Clark Kent definitely included a hat which would be furtively removed along with the glasses whenever their was danger, and I remember actually having a Superman costume as a kid. It was a good one as well, which actually looked like a Superman costume, rather than just having the basic colors and then a big Superman logo / picture on the chest (like a lot that I’d see back then).

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I don’t have many pictures of the things I’m talking about, so I’m just going to include some pictures of comics I like.  So here’s Astro City, by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson

But even more than The Adventures of Superman, Batman was the show for me back in the day. For me the daring-do of Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin was completely legit—often funny but not mocking, even when Batman pulled out his Bat-Shark Repellent or the dynamic duo were trapped in a giant snow cone. Their adventures are now obviously gaudy and full of parody, but for my young eyes it was adventure fiction at its grandest. Maybe the fact that we only had a black & white TV at the time helped to blind me to some of its sillier aspects.

Anyway, I wouldn’t have any way of tracing when all this was happening except that when I had my 1st grade birthday, the whole thing was completely Batman-themed. My parents and older brothers built a big bat-computer out of cardboard which had blinking lights, sound effects, and a light up screen that we could put translucent maps on. The party included Batman costumes, a Batman cake, and Batman games. This was in June of 1977, when I was turning 7, so pretty clearly the show had held some sway in my life prior to that.

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The Arrival by Western Australian storyteller Shaun Tan

Probably even more influential than the Batman show, however, was the seemingly endless presence of Super Friends, in one iteration or another, as a staple part of my Saturday morning TV line-up. That show started in the 1973-1974 TV season, with one hour episodes featuring Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, and the junior (and non-powered) Justice Leaguers Wendy, Marvin and Wonder-Dog. I would have only been 3-4 years old at that time so I’m pretty sure I was not really aware of the series then, but rather from repeats that aired over the next several years.

The next version of Super Friends to come out didn’t hit the airwaves until the 1977 TV season (the All-New Super Friends Hour), presumably in September sometime. I definitely remember the start of that show, and the introduction of Wendy & Marvin’s replacements, the Wonder Twins and their pet space-monkey Gleek. That means I was watching the previous version of Super Friends before that, possibly in that same 1976-1977 school year that culminated in my Batman party.

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Bone by Jeff Smith

Thrown into the mix here someplace was Shazam!, the live action Saturday morning show from Filmmation, which originally aired in 1974-1976, but it reran in 1980, so it’s possible that that’s when I caught it—but for other reasons I’ll mention soon that seems too late.

So all of that helped to cement my love for superheroes, but what about comics themselves?

Note: obviously comics are about a lot more than super-heroes, or at least they can be. But, aside from a few forays into Archie and other kid’s fare—like Caspar the Friendly Ghost or Richie Rich, my reading was almost exclusively superheroes, which is common to a lot of kids my age. I never even got around to that “Illustrated Classics” version of David Copperfield (or was it Nicholas Nickelby?) which my brother insisted I read.

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Sword of the Atom by Gil Kane and Jan Strnad

Well, somewhere along the line I acquired a handful of random issues of superhero comics from that same era of the mid-1970’s. I specifically remember issues of Green Lantern (#91 – cover dated November 1976), Justice League of America (#134—September 1976), Batman (#276—June 1976) and Superman Family (#177—July 1976) which were read and reread. Since those cover dates were usually a few months in advance, it’s possible that I was reading some of those things in the first half of 1976…back when I was in kindergarten!  I have never seen any of those issues again as an adult, and I’m really curious to because I almost never really understood what was going on.

Sometime in there I decided that Green Lantern, aka Hal Jordan, was my favorite superhero character, which is notable because I specifically remember watching that first generation of Super Friends and wishing that he’d show up. Occasionally heroes aside from the main 5 would appear, and I always wanted it to be Green Lantern. Once when everyone was captured, Marvin and Wendy lamented that all the other Super Friends were away on missions in space, and the only one available was Green…Arrow! I was very disappointed, little knowing that in only a short year or two Green Lantern would become a regular fixture on Super Friends, and that it’d take decades before Green Arrow would show up in animation again. (Now that we live in a day where Green Arrow sort of anchors a whole bunch of interconnected TV shows, that seems really strange.)

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The Flash by Mark Waid and Greg Larocque, back in the glory days of Wally West

It’s possible that I acquired those comics from a English lady that my family somehow became friends with during that time. She’d buy me comics, usually Marvel ones which she said were harder to find, so that was evidence that they were more popular. I liked Marvel comics and characters like Spider-Man and Hulk, but they never overtook my affection for DC, in spite of her gentle persuasion. Of course, this same lady also took the time to explain to me in detail the plots of Omen, Omen 2, and The Exorcist, so I think really what business did I have to be listening to her about anything?

(Hmm, I’ve realized that The Omen 2–ugh–came out in 1978. I’m not sure how long we were friends with that English lady, but two years seems like a long time, for her to have both bought me those 1976 comics and also told me about those movies…unless the comics had been on the rack a long time!)

But…if I have to pick one pivotal moment that helped to cement my interest in comics, it involved hanging out with the son of another family friend, an older kid that was more my brother’s age, who had a bunch of comics and obviously knew his stuff. From him, I learned for the first time that there was such a thing as Marvel and DC and the great divide that lie between them. I learned which characters were with which publisher, including the detail that Marvel had a character called Captain Marvel, but it wasn’t the guy from Shazam!

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The Legion, a really effective “soft reboot” of my favorite series, at least for a while, by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

And I learned a lot about the origins of many of those characters—remember that this was back in the day when lots of these origins were still a bit “secret” because those stories weren’t repeated ad nauseum, and there wasn’t one or more major feature films detailing different versions of them for each major character.

This was all in a conversation in our family basement, which was set up at the time as a bit of a play room. Later, I think I was at this guy’s house and I saw some of his comics, including what I can verify was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #245, the conclusion of the Earth-War Saga. I remember this in particular because the issue features four characters primarily: Superboy, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Karate Kid, the guy pointed out that three of those characters were not actual members of the Legion at the time (as Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl were forcibly retired because they were married, and Karate Kid’s membership was a victim of the popularity of martial arts, and he was mostly off in his own book at the time). It’s possible that this was my first ever exposure to Legion of Super-Heroes, but I don’t know for sure.

I also think that maybe this guy gifted me one of my other main early Legion of Super-Heroes connections, which was Superboy #188, which featured a Legion story called The Curse of the Blood Crystals. It was another one of my much re-read early comics, but it was published with a cover date of July 1972, so I definitely acquired it much later, and visits to comic shops were still years off.

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Mr. Miracle, my favorite of the Fourth World concepts, by Jack Kirby

But the really key things that this kid introduced me to were the early paperback compilations of the day, specifically Origin of Marvel Comics and Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. Each of these were big volumes that reprinted early origin stories of some of the major characters co-created by Stan Lee, with little reminiscing essays about the genesis of each one. The first volume focused on the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor and Doctor Strange, and featured both the origin and a tale from later in the run which showed how the concepts developed. Son of Origins went on in the same format with the X-Men, Iron Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, Nick Fury of SHIELD, the Watcher and the Silver Surfer. These books really introduced me to a whole world of characters and concepts, many of which I was not particularly familiar with before. And, obviously, it gave me their origin stories, which back then seemed more special than it does now (as I mentioned above).

And even though it was Marvel, which ultimately didn’t hold my interest in the same way their DC cousins did, it gave me a glimpse of the sort of stories, adventures, and world-building that was possible (and common) in mainstream comics.  Hearing all about comics from this guy, and then coming into contact with these oversized giant treasure troves of comicy goodness, were–if memory serves–the real “hook” moment for me getting into comics, and certainly spurred on whatever was being developed by those TV shows and cartoons that I was watching.

Trevor Von Eeden
Thriller by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden

Origins of Marvel Comics was published in 1974, whilst Son of Origins… was published in 1975. I borrowed Son of Origins and promptly got the cover torn, which was sad because it showed my lack of responsibility, but was great because it meant my parents ended up buying its owner a replacement and I got to keep the one I’d borrowed! So…not a great life lesson, I guess, but I did get to keep the comic, and I soon acquired more.

The third book in this series, Bring on the Bad Guys (with origins of Dr. Doom, Green Goblin, Red Skull, and lots of others villains) came out in 1976, although it might have already been published by the time I’d encountered the previous books.  But I’m fairly certain the fourth volume, The Super-Hero Women (featuring Invisible Girl, Black Widow, Ms. Marvel, Medusa, and others) was not out yet. It was published in 1977.

So…all the clues are pointing to 1976 as the critical year in my life where I really transitioned from just liking superheroes to actually reading comics.

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JLA / Avengers, which was way more awesome than it had the right to be, by Kurt Busiek and George Perez

There were other influencing moments as well.  I remember finding a few “best of” black and white collections of Superman and Batman stories in my school library, for example.  My friend had some comics I’d browse.  And I also received comics to help pass the time on some long road trips we used to do as a family.  But it might never have happened to quite the same depth if I hadn’t gotten my hands on those collections of  early Marvel work by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and their fellows.

The mainstream media side of things kicked along as well.  Superman the Movie also hit in 1978, and so did the television version of The Incredible Hulk, which aired right after the last season of TV’s Wonder Woman—a time period that maybe back then I would have considered the comic book geek’s golden age (except I never would have used language like that as an 8 year old). If there was still any question, my enjoyment of things was pretty locked in by then.

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Boxers & Saints (two interconnected volumes that get sold in one slipcase), by Gene Luen Yang

Tracking this into the future, we run into lots of other elements, including regular visits to the mini-market that sold a bunch of comics in a cardboard box; the deal I had with my parents where if I read five books, they’d buy me a comic; the discovery of my first few comic shops in my hometown in upstate New York; visiting comic shops in New York City; meeting my first comic book professionals at a comic shop in New York City; attending my first comic convention as a teenager; and the moment where the Big Two publisher’s strategy of putting out lots of crossovers and tie-in events paid off for DC but not for Marvel, as I decided I couldn’t keep up with both companies at once.

When I was a young man, maybe still a teenager or maybe in college, I had a chat with my mother where I told her that I assumed I’d eventually outgrow comics—that I couldn’t imagine myself still reading them when I was 40. Well, 40 has come and gone, and here I am. My buying habits have changed many times depending on my situation, and I gave up monthly comics completely when I found out that the last version of Legion of Super-Heroes was being cancelled, and Francis Manapul left The Flash. But my bookshelf is still full of hardcover and paperback collections, and I definitely have a list of others I’m interested in, and I’m stoked about the new Avengers movie which has just come out.

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Both this and the top image are from DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke 

So I guess this interest is still going strong.

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